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US tightens rules on AI chip sales to China in blow to Nvidia

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The Biden administration is tightening export controls for cutting-edge artificial intelligence chips, in an update to existing rules that will severely limit the ability of Nvidia and other manufacturers to sell high-performance semiconductors to China.

The US commerce department on Tuesday extended the sweeping export controls that were first introduced in October 2022, in an effort to reflect technological advances and also to make it harder for companies to find ways to work around the restrictions.

Commerce secretary Gina Raimondo said the goal of the update was to curb China’s access to advanced chips that “could fuel breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and sophisticated computers” that are critical for the Chinese military.

It comes weeks before a possible summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping if the Chinese leader attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco.

China has slammed the US over its export controls. During recent visits to Beijing, however, US officials have stressed that, while the Biden administration wants more engagement, it would not avoid taking national security actions when warranted.

Graphics processing units produced by Nvidia, AMD and Intel have become an indispensable component for training large AI models for tech companies, governments and start-ups, sparking a rush for the latest chips.

Shares in Nvidia, which has previously said that as much as 25 per cent of its data centre chip revenues come from China, fell about 6 per cent in early trading in New York after the updated rules were announced. AMD and Intel were both about 3 per cent lower.

After the introduction of last year’s rules, Nvidia designed new versions of its top-tier H100 and A100 GPUs specifically for Chinese customers, bringing them below the performance threshold set by the US.

Chinese tech companies have been rushing to buy these modified H800 and A800 GPUs, which are critical for generative AI, amid concern that the US would tighten restrictions.

One US official said the new rule would bar Nvidia from selling A800 and H800 GPUs chips in China. The updated rules will also affect Gaudi2, an Intel AI chip. A second official said the administration had taken into account how groups were “trying to work around our parameters” in drafting the update.

Nvidia chief executive Jensen Huang told the Financial Times earlier this year that the 2022 controls had left the Silicon Valley company with its “hands tied behind our back” by barring sales of its most advanced chips to China. He has said further restrictions could seriously harm US chipmakers by eating into their ability to finance investment.

“We comply with all applicable regulations while working to provide products that support thousands of applications across many different industries,” Nvidia said on Tuesday. “Given the demand worldwide for our products, we don’t expect a near-term meaningful impact on our financial results.”

Intel said it was “reviewing the rules and assessing the potential impact”. AMD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The most immediate effect will be cutting China off from advanced AI chips, including the modified versions of chips that Nvidia specifically designed to comply with last year’s controls,” said Gregory Allen, an AI expert at the CSIS think-tank. “Now [Chinese companies] are looking at years where the AI chips that China can access are significantly inferior to what is available in the west.”

Under the 2022 rule, the US barred exports of chips that exceeded two thresholds: one for power and the other for the speed at which chips talk to each other. The commerce department is replacing the latter with a “performance density” measure that is explicitly designed to stop companies from finding workaround solutions.

The revamped export controls will prohibit the sale to Chinese groups of data centre chips that are capable of operating at speeds of 300 teraflops — meaning they can calculate 300tn operations per second — and above.

Sales of chips with speeds of 150 to 300 teraflops will be barred if they have a performance density of 370 gigaflops (billion calculations) per square millimetre or more. Chips that operate at those speeds but with lower performance density fall into a “grey zone”, meaning companies must notify the government about sales to China.

Raimondo said the rules would exempt chips for consumer products, such as for smartphones and gaming. But the officials said exporters would have to notify the government when they exported chips with speeds of more than 300 teraflops.

The updated rules also expand the list of chipmaking tools that cannot be sold to China. The second official said the US would also add two Chinese groups to the “entity list”, making it extremely hard for them to get US technology. He said the two groups were involved in the design of chips that undermined US national security.

ASML, one of the top suppliers of leading-edge chip manufacturing equipment, said it expected the new regulations would apply to “a limited number of fabs in China” involved in advanced chipmaking that it supplies.

Netherlands-based ASML, whose shares were down about 2 per cent after the new controls were announced, said it did “not expect these measures to have a material impact on our financial outlook for 2023 and for our longer-term scenarios for 2025 and 2030”.

Leah Sirama
Leah Sirama
Leah Sirama, a lifelong enthusiast of Artificial Intelligence, has been exploring technology and the digital realm since childhood. Known for his creative thinking, he's dedicated to improving AI experiences for all, making him a respected figure in the field. His passion, curiosity, and creativity drive advancements in the AI world.
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